As I type this, I'm listening to one of Paul Bowles' compositions from Blue Mountain Ballads, his 1946 musical rendition of poetry by his friend Tennessee Williams, inspired by southern American music. You can listen to selections on Song of America.
But in Tangier last Friday, we had some of those same Bowles ballads live, or as close as we could get to "live" some 15 years after his death. For the overflow audience at the Legation concert – featuring the inauguration of our new (used-but-tuned) piano – Bowles was almost with us again, thanks to his friend and musical heir Irene Herrmann. And it wasn't just Irene on piano; we also had her daughter Kaethe Hostetter playing the violin and Latifa Azmy, soprano of Tangier. What an evening.
Right to left: Irene Herrmann, Kaethe Hostetter, and Latifa Azmy
We have our partners the American Language Center in Tangier and the US Embassy Rabat Cultural Affairs Office to thank for their support. Here's the ALC's abbreviated YouTube video (approx 20 minutes); other photos in this post courtesy Rachid El Mziryahi, ALC.
Natasha Pradhan of ALC – herself a student of Moroccan traditional music – recorded the concert and has made us a podcast – click here.
Irene Herrmann doesn't just apply herself to the keyboard when she evokes Paul Bowles. Selections from his oeuvre (spanning seven decades) are interspersed with readings from his and Jane Bowles' letters and published works, and anecdotes – some never heard before in Tangier, where Bowles spent most of his long and productive life. Her "Paul Bowles, Composer" is a very concise summary of this Renaissance man's musical side, which Bowles, writing in the shadow of Tangier's "Old Mountain," continued even after he became much better known as a writer.
Before Irene Herrmann first met Paul Bowles in Tangier, she had made a pilgrimage to the Henry Ransom Center archives at UT in Austin, finding a wealth of material by Bowles, including unpublished musical scores. When she met Bowles later in Tangier and played some of these for him, he playfully made her repeat the recital until he admitted that he recognized his own work – but only when she played a false note on the third go.
It was this kind of "insider" relationship – without the slightest shade of name-dropping – that makes Irene such a pleasure, and a treasure. Though she only knew Bowles in the last decade of his life, her commitment to music – his music – led Paul Bowles to name Irene Herrmann as his musical inheritor. Irene takes her responsibility very seriously, and is the indispensible reference for work involving not only Bowles' numerous compositions, but also his work to record Morocco's traditional music, a project in which TALIM is very active.
Maybe it's because we have Bowles' music – his compositions, his Moroccan recordings, plus his narration of selected writings – playing at the Legation's Bowles Wing on our iPod continuous loop, but I can hear his melodies echoing in my ear. Now relatively little known, his music is precise, like the man apparently was (it's evident in his writing, too). Precise, but melodious, though sometimes the words can strike a jarring note – Irene Herrmann read us some of Jane Bowles' writing set to music, and the poignant frailty of Jane comes through with painful clarity.
Irene Herrmann last saw Bowles in 1999, "shrinking away in bed, yet still precise in his answers." Herrmann modestly puts herself in the category of mere "performer," and says that Bowles "listened differently; he had a composer's ear."
Those of us who listened to Irene last weekend know that she too has an eye and an ear for detail, and her musical portrait of the man whom some of us never met was a precise as anything that Bowles might have written. A Bowles evening, with Irene Herrmann.